Pinter after a pause

Hitmen Ben and Gus wrestle each other's throats

Harold Pinter's The Dumb Waiter runs at Hampstead Theatre starring Shane Zaza and Alec Newman - Credit: Helen Maybanks

The Dumb Waiter at Hampstead Theatre

The set for this 60th anniversary production of Harold Pinter's Beckettian two-hander has stood sentinel over an empty auditorium since March.

A cast change and two lockdowns later, and it's a sombre piece to reopen the shuttered venue - to a masked and spaced out audience.

The communal theatre experience, and pre-show conversation was inevitably subdued - but we were all just happy to experience an all too short 55 minutes of live theatre.

With hints of Vaudevillian patter, it's the darkest of double acts - two hitmen in a circular basement with peeling grey wallpaper awaiting instructions for their next kill.

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Ben (Alec Newman) is the senior partner, controlled, with a hint of OCD as he brushes imaginary lint from his jacket. Gus (Shane Zaza) is more chaotic, displaying signs of PTSD about messy past 'jobs'  and asking too many questions about the faceless authority they work for. 

It's a cliche but nevertheless true that Pinter is all about timing. Not just the famous pauses, but here, the pair's rat-a-tat routines about lighting stoves and making tea, punctuated by the descent of the titular serving hatch and demands for increasingly exotic dishes.

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The tension rises as we - and they - realise these waiting men are being toyed with by an external force . But Alice Hamilton's assured revival doesn't always hit the right beat - especially in the crucial closing moments, and Zaza's Gus is a shade cuddly for a practiced assassin.

Hitmen Gus and Ben sit side by side awaiting instructions

Harold Pinter's The Dumb Waiter runs at Hampstead Theatre starring Shane Zaza and Alec Newman - Credit: Helen Maybanks

Hampstead Theatre founder James Roose-Evans, who directed that first  production six decades ago, made another observation about timing.  Playing The Dumb Waiter in a double act starting with the more naturalistic kitchen sink drama of The Room, meant audiences were ready to laugh by the second half. Welcome as it was to once more sit in the stalls watching live entertainment, it seemed few of us pandemic theatregoers were ready to let go.

Rating: 3/5 stars

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